FALL 2017
Cuban Architectural Conservation in the Twenty-First Century
By Rosa Lowinger
The Habana Libre Hotel

Barely the size of California, and with a population slightly greater than that of Los Angeles county, Cuba abounds in historic buildings and museum collections. This Caribbean nation has seven UNESCO World Heritage cultural sites and several hundred historic centers, cultural landscapes, and individual sites designated Monumento Nacional by Cuba’s Ministry of Culture. It also boasts both the oldest and the largest extant Spanish fortresses in the Americas and roughly one hundred fifty museums, many established to serve small communities.

But the principal architectural factor setting Cuba apart from most other countries in the Americas is that the vast majority of its building stock was constructed before 1960. While most are not grand enough to merit a Monumento Nacional designation, these structures testify to the island’s five-hundred-year history—first as a Spanish colony, then as a twentieth-century republic closely tied to the United States, and since 1959 as a Communist society whose government expropriated private property and presently owns all major buildings. Ranging from baroque, neoclassical, neo-Gothic, art nouveau, art deco, Italianate, streamline moderne, and midcentury modern to regional vernacular styles and an early twentieth-century fusion style known as eclectico cubano, many of these historic structures are embellished with decorative features and integral artworks. They are also in dire need of conservation.

The incorporation of art into buildings is a central aspect of Cuban architecture. One of Cuba’s oldest sites, the Castillo de la Real Fuerza (1577), is crowned with a 1632 bronze sculpture called La Giraldilla, which has become the symbol of Havana. Throughout the colonial period, Cuban buildings included carved and painted ceilings, colored glass windows, figurative caryatids, sculpted columns, mural paintings, tile fountains, mosaic pavements, decorative stucco, and walls festooned with faux finishes and scagliola.

This penchant for ornamental finishes and art within architecture was as common in the countryside as in the capital. Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century sugar barons and landed gentry regularly contracted local artists and Italian muralists to adorn their homes, churches, and theaters. Pairing art with architecture proliferated during the building boom associated with the 1863 removal of Havana’s city wall, peaking in the decades following the 1902 establishment of the Cuban Republic. The grand hotels, cigar factories, theaters, casinos, social clubs, and government buildings of the era contain important artworks, including decorations by the Tiffany Studios in the Presidential Palace (1920) and by René Lalique in the Vedado mansion (1927) and mausoleum (1933) built by sugar magnate Juan Pedro Baró. The astonishing range of ornamentation includes concrete trees and starfish pavilions in the early twentieth-century beer garden and dance hall Los Jardines de la Tropical and colorful glazed terracotta block and bronze bat fittings for the 1930 office headquarters of rum maker Bacardi.

The Bacardi Building in Havana

When modernism arrived in Cuba, the tendency to decorate was replaced by the passion for the “smooth and precious surfaces” touted by European architects Adolf Loos and Le Corbusier. But this austerity did not last long. According to architectural historian Eduardo Luis Rodriguez: “The idiosyncrasy of the Cuban did not allow for easy assimilation of the modernist’s coldly stripped-down surfaces. As modern structures became architecturally more complex, the tendency to complement and enrich the buildings with decorative features and site-specific artworks revived.”1 Taking cues from similar trends in Mexico, Brazil, and Venezuela, Cuban architects began including abstract sculptures, decorative brise-soleils, terrazzo pavements, and murals designed by Cuba’s leading artists. By the 1950s, artworks by avant-garde masters Wifredo Lam, Amelia Peláez, René Portocarrero, Mariano Rodríguez, Rolando López Dirube, Rita Longa, and Florencio Gelabert, among others, were de rigueur in public buildings and residences. Indeed, some of Cuba’s best murals are located in apartment building lobbies of the period.


Generalizations are risky, but it is safe to say that preservation has been a long-standing Cuban interest. Records of conservation efforts prior to 1959 are limited, although the concern for retaining the past is evidenced by the city wall fragments that dot Old Havana and by the volume of historic buildings that remain in place. At that time, most property was held privately, and architectural conservation was not a national focus. In 1930 prominent Cuban architects Evelio Govantes and Félix Cabarrocas were assigned the remodeling of the Palace of the Captain Generals (1776–91), the former seat of the Spanish colonial government that served as the capitol (1902–20) and then as Havana City Hall (from 1920 to the early 1950s). They produced a plan to renovate walls, ceilings, floors, woodwork, and infrastructure. But though their firm was responsible for numerous highly decorated buildings in Havana, for the palace they recommended removing the remaining stucco finish on the exterior.

Expropriation of property after 1959 was a game changer, primarily because divesting private ownership eliminated economic incentives to demolish old buildings. The mid-1950s Plan Piloto de la Habana by Catalonian architect and planner Josep Lluis Sert would have devastated nearly half of Old Havana’s buildings to construct a grand boulevard from the Capitolio to the port. After 1959 such plans were no longer possible. In their place, Cuba enacted strict preservation ordinances. The first two laws of the 1976 Cuban Constitution—the Law on Protection of the Cultural Heritage (Law No. 1) and the Law on National and Local Monuments (Law No. 2, 1977)—established a National Register of Cultural Property and National Monuments Commission as departments of the Ministry of Culture and defined categories for protection. Most important, the laws mandated that the restoration of art in a designated site needed the National Monuments Commission’s approval.

Preservation and conservation institutions followed, beginning with the 1978 establishment of the conservation workshop at the National Fine Arts Museum and with the 1980 founding of the National Center for Conservation, Restoration, and Museology (CENCREM). With seed money from UNESCO, and located in a seventeenth-century convent in Old Havana, CENCREM was Cuba’s first national institution expressly created to train conservators, undertaking major projects with a scientific approach. CENCREM also sponsored international preservation conferences that brought together experts from around the world (but primarily Latin America and the Caribbean) to explore approaches to treatment particularly relevant for developing countries. In 1997 the college-level Superior Art Institute began granting undergraduate and master’s degrees in conservation in concert with CENCREM. Although CENCREM closed in 2012, largely because of deterioration of the convento where it was located, the degree program remains.

The early twentieth-century dance pavilion at Los Jardines de la Tropical in Havana

In the mid-1990s, the Office of the Historian of Havana came under the direction of historian Eusebio Leal Spengler, who devised—and was allowed to implement—a unique model for preservation and conservation that reinvested revenue from hotels and restaurants located within the World Heritage Site into conservation projects. As part of this initiative, several key treatment centers were established. The first was a state-of-the-art paintings conservation studio, staffed by Cuba’s most experienced paintings conservators, cherry-picked from CENCREM. The second was La Escuela Taller Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos, a workshop that now trains at-risk youths in historic-building trades including masonry, glasswork, stone carving, iron forging, bronze casting, carpentry, painting, plaster work, and mural painting, and that guarantees employment to its graduates. In 2007–8 Colegio Universitario San Geronimo, a preservation and heritage management college, was established in a restored building within the historic district. The building also houses the Historian of Havana’s studios for conserving works on paper, books, clocks, sculpture, and metals, as well as a scientific laboratory.

Yet despite these efforts, conservation is arduous in a country of such limited economic resources. When economic strictures are coupled with the limitations on materials imposed by the US embargo and the bureaucratic roadblocks created by top-down control of projects, the fact that anything has been adequately conserved is a minor miracle. And therein lies the conundrum of Cuban preservation efforts. It’s a good thing to have strict laws protecting heritage, but if there is no project funding, and if access to materials is restricted, conservation is hobbled. Deferred maintenance constitutes the single biggest challenge, especially for early twentiethcentury reinforced concrete buildings devastated by the effects of saline air and high humidity. Partial and full building collapses are not uncommon, especially when torrential summer rains saturate surfaces that then crack as they bake in the tropical sun. Indeed, the country is known not only for the quality of its architecture but for its state of decay. However, Cuba’s changing economy and foreign investment are beginning to alter that.


Today, Havana is a city of cranes. They tower around the historic district, snarling traffic, and the sound of jackhammers permeates the city. Cuba is racing to restore its historic-building stock, a drive fueled primarily by the need for hotel rooms. Since 2015, when President Obama relaxed US travel restrictions to Cuba, Americans have rushed to see Cuba “before it changes.” That ship, however, sailed long ago. Cuba is transforming rapidly. There are approximately twenty new hotel projects in the capital alone and many others around the country, most involving renovation of high-value historic buildings. A 2011 Cuban law that allows private ownership of residences by Cubans and repatriated Cuban Americans is spurring private restoration to create Airbnb-style lodgings called casas particulares.

The opening of borders is bringing opportunity to individuals, and even non–property owners are beginning to benefit. For historic buildings, however, this is potentially dangerous. There is little or no control over intervention on structures not nationally registered or outside World Heritage districts, and even though the National Council of Cultural Heritage and the National Monuments Commission retain authority over high-value sites, investors, hotel developers, and the government’s tourist ministry press for work to be done quickly. Moreover, new laws allowing limited private enterprise have led to the creation of restoration and construction “brigades” staffed by artists, often in conjunction with graduates of the Escuela Taller. These enterprises can sell their services as “restorers of architecture” not only to the private sector but also for work on high-value buildings, often without trained conservators providing oversight. As a result, some damaging methodologies are employed on historic finishes and integral artworks.

Decorated facade of a building (ca. 1920) on Galiano Street in Havana

This peril is not lost on Cuba’s preservation professionals. Gladys Collazo Usallán, president of the National Council of Cultural Heritage and the National Monuments Commission, says her greatest concern is maintaining preservation values at a time when so much urgent work needs to be done. The council regularly convenes panels of experts to vet projects in the highest-value buildings. They strongly advocate for the inclusion of conservation professionals in all projects and for conducting thorough analysis prior to intervention. But the pressure is daunting, especially for architectural artworks. To combat this, the council is trying to encourage best practices.

A significant project under way is a nationwide inventory of murals and decorative finishes in historic buildings. Directed by Eliza Serrano, a venerated scholar and practitioner who founded the murals department at CENCREM and now teaches at the Superior Art Institute, this ambitious undertaking aims to catalog “everything that is a decorative surface that is part of the spatial atmosphere of a building.” It is a formidable task, but the council hopes this data will also help train regional historic-sector workers in identifying and understanding what constitutes a historic decorative surface. Serrano eloquently states, “We can’t separate the material from the space because the space is its material. This needs to be understood through observation and discussion of the philosophical essence of the work—how it fits into the building, what its role is in the cultural expression. We are under enormous economic pressure, but if we create an army of cultural defense, we can protect our patrimony.”

Rosa Lowinger is a conservator in private practice in Los Angeles focusing on modern and contemporary sculpture, architecture, and public art. Born in Cuba, she is the author, with Ofelia Fox, of Tropicana Nights: The Life and Times of the Legendary Cuban Nightclub. She gives special thanks to Gladys Collazo Usallán, Salomé García Bacallao, Universo García, Ayleen Robaina, Eliza Serrano, Eduardo Luis Rodriguez, Isabel Rigol, and Angela Rojas for assistance in preparing this article.

1. Eduardo Luis Rodriguez, La Habana: Arquitectura del Siglo XX (Barcelona: Blume, 1998), 293 (translated by the author).